MP SPEAKS | Teamwork trumps alpha leadership in politics

Bad politics driving people away from serious participation in public affairs.

MP SPEAKS | In the last three years, Malaysians have experienced the most volatile politics that politics can offer. Indeed, as a consequence, many have become fatigued and increasingly cynical due to the endless fighting among political leaders for positions and power.

This sort of roguish politics rarely has anything to do with the interest of the people, and in turn, discouraged many from taking an interest in politics itself. Yet, while bad politics drives people away from serious participation in public affairs, our response must be one of good politics and not one which gives up on politics. We must never surrender to cynicism.

The truth is, politics is an all-encompassing reality. It covers almost every realm of our life from our family to our schools and workplaces. However, today, society relates politics only to the ugly fights between politicians over positions and power. This is very unfortunate and sad.

Politics essentially is about making decisions for community-living, i.e. how we live together. It deals with resource allocation, protection of rights, and the direction of progress in our society.

Of course, the story of politics is so much simpler and sensational when it is depicted as the match between one party against another or one politician against another; like a football match or a boxing match. But the obsession with such gladiatorial ideas is precisely why we are seeing politics degressing into the sad state today.

Politics should never be an arena for the display of “alpha-ness” or “kejantanan”. In fact, the best of our politics was never about individuals but ideas. Ideas that transcend persons and time, ideas that speak to us as human beings rather than antagonistic partisans. It is time we move beyond the leaders, more so from any one leader, to teamwork and ideas.

I stress the role of the team here because political leaders are neither angels, saints, nor superheroes, and as such, they need one another. Moreover, one is only a leader when he or she has a team.

We are used to strongman politics. It is undeniable that Dr Mahathir Mohamad who once held the premiership for 22 long years has reshaped the Malaysian political culture in his own image. We follow the Westminster system with a “Whitehall-lian” prime minister and his cabinet.

In such a system, the prime minister plays the role of being first among equals, primus inter pares, among his cabinet colleagues. However, just as Westminster and Whitehall evolved when copied and contextualised outside of the UK, our prime minister in Putrajaya is actually reminiscent of a US president more than a UK prime minister.

In fact, he – an unfortunate truism in so far as only males have held the office – not only believes himself to be one but his political colleagues of all partisan persuasions believe him to be one.

Take for example the Prime Minister’s Department (PMD) which has been turned into a quasi-office of the president. The PMD budget ballooned from RM1.15 billion in 1986 to RM 2.385 billion within 10 years and then doubled again in the next decade to become RM5.389 billion in 2006.

From there, in just another 10 years, the PMD budget hit a historic high at RM20.31 billion in 2016 during former PM Najib Abdul Razak’s tenure.

When Pakatan Harapan came into power, the budget for the PMD was slashed to RM7.4 billion. The quadruple increment during Najib’s premiership was to sustain large slush funds, thus making the PM into a powerful figure with deep pockets.

It is worth noting that the budget for the PMD has increased to RM11.69 billion for 2021 under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. The PN cabinet itself is the largest ever in our history. The PM controls resources, whether financial or even posh government positions, to be distributed at his own whim to reward political allegiance and obedience.

We desperately need to rethink our current setup. The Westminster system assumes cooperation and teamwork of the entire cabinet if not the entire Parliament, not the personality cult of a PM figure. The PM is like a choir conductor, but without the choristers, there will be no song.

We have to reframe our politics of thinking that the PM is a first among equals. During the election, we are electing a team of MPs to form the government, not a president, much less a dictator.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that no single party can be as dominant as Umno was two decades ago. We have already bid farewell to the era of a single dominant party. Today, every party will have to form a coalition to win power.

Hence, no ruling party should try to wipe out its opponents by depriving the rights of opposition MPs or even inducing them to cross over. The deprivation of rights and resources, as well as enticing political defection, will only create a vicious cycle that eventually harms those in power themselves.

As a participant in Malaysian politics, I fully understand and feel frustrated with this gladiatorial politics, where everyone wants to be the winner, the top of the hierarchy, the alpha of the group because being the loser means the world to lose. In other words, our politics is a zero-sum game – you either win everything or lose everything.

Such alpha mentality blocks cooperation and impedes negotiation to reach a win-win situation. As the Chinese idiom goes, one mountain cannot contain two tigers.

But, we are not animals, we are human beings. We should rise above the primordial urge of territorialism and work together to achieve more for all, especially now when society is facing a once-in-a-century pandemic and economic crisis.

My time in politics may be short compared to many other veterans, yet I have experienced enough of alpha politics to know its toxic ugliness. It is time for our generation and the next generation to shape a new political culture that champions the spirit of cooperation instead of the zero-sum gladiatorial politics we now see and so loathe. The latter is toxic and affects the wellbeing of every Malaysian.

By : WONG SHU QI (Kluang MP and a Johor DAP committee member) – MALAYSIAKINI

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